Tuesday, July 13, 2010


Totentanz is the German term for a dance of death, often portrayed in late medieval art. The French call it danse macabre.

Above: “The Dance of Death” (1493) by Michael Wolgemut. Skeletons leap up from graves, play instruments and give each other high fives, with their tattered shrouds still wrapped around their shoulders.

This one is by Bernt Notke (click on image to enlarge). The skeletons alternate with popes, kings, artisans and commoners, arranged by rank. Death conquers and equalizes all social classes.

The skeletons are livelier than the living, kicking their heels in the air. The theme got a big boost with the Black Death from plague in the 14th century and from the slaughter of the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) between France and England.

The theme has turned up in many art forms, starting with poems, mime dances, and morality plays. Nineteenth century composer Camille Saint-Saëns wrote piece of music called “Danse Macabre” which sets the scene perfectly, with the xylophone playing the bones.

Saint-Saens performed on orchestra via YouTube
Note: Lots of links in the comments.


sirfrancisdrake said...

Hans Holbein did a great set of these danse macabre woodcuts as well.


Daroo said...

Here's the Disney version (Ub Iwerks if you wanna be specific...):


Andrés Carrandi said...

Hello Sir, I don't know if you're familiar with José Guadalupe Posada, a Mexican engraver from the end of the 19th century who created a lot of skeleton art, completely unrelated to this, and as per the Mexican Day of the Dead tradition. There are several dance scenes, similar to these. Here's a link:


Chloe Cumming said...

Lovely images, I'm a big fan of your blog. I love death as a theme in painting. And dancing skellies of course.

MLHay said...

Great Death Dance video from Nate Bellegarde: http://fetorpse.blogspot.com/2009/10/happy-halloween.html

MLHay said...

Great death dance video from Nate Bellegarde: http://fetorpse.blogspot.com/2009/10/happy-halloween.html

René PleinAir said...

James you might find this interesting as well:

Dead can dance , ... YouTube 1:37

Medieval music on modern way played.

Anonymous said...

James, a small addendum: the artist who painted the third example in your post is not credited. It is Croatian painter Vincent from Kastav (in Latin: Vincencius de Kastua) who in 1474 executed frescoes (one of which is that one) in abbey church Sv. Marija na Škrilinah, near Beram, Croatia.

James Gurney said...

Thanks, everybody for adding so many interesting leads to this post.

Terence said...

A more scientific approach of the danse macabre in text and image in late-medieval England (but with grate illustrations):

'Fro Paris to Inglond'? The danse macabre in text and image in late-medieval England

Andrew Finnie said...

James, thankyou for this. I a great fan of your blog as well, so a big thanks for all your posts. This post actually gave me an idea for an illustration - so double big thanks.